I had been invited to the home of one of Colombo’s most wealthy and distinguished families for a dana (alms-giving). They told me they were particularly interested in having a suduhamdru visit and that the man of the house had a deep interest in Dhamma. I arrived and was ushered into the main sitting room where a large chair covered with a white sheet awaited me. One by one, the family assembled to greet me and as they did, I looked around the room. There was beautiful, old Dutch furniture, souvenirs from the family’s many overseas trips, a painting I recognised as by George Keyt and very prominently displayed in a glass cabinet were bottles of Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Camus Cognac XO and other high-priced liquor.
After the usual small talk, a table was put in front of me and one by one, the family came and spooned the food onto my plate. When this was finished, everyone sat on the floor and I picked up the fork and spoon to start eating. My host quickly said: “Venerable sir, pansil first?” I put the cutlery down and pretending to be surprised, replied: “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Everyone looked a little surprised and my host said: “But venerable, that’s the custom. We always do that.” I replied: “Well, my idea is that it’s not so good to take Pancha Sila if you don’t intend to practise it.” Then I turned and looked very noticeably at the cabinet with all the alcohol displayed in it. The lady of the house appeared slightly embarrassed, several of the older children giggled, but my host was not even a little lost for words. He said: “Ah, I see! Venerable let me explain. Buddhism is meant to be the middle way between extremes. If you drink until you get drunk, that’s one extreme. If you don’t drink at all, that’s another extreme. So I follow the middle path and just drink in moderation every now and then.”
I have heard many rationalisations by people who consider themselves Buddhist as to why they take alcohol, but this was by far the most ingenious. I had to smile at my host’s ability to twist the Dhamma to his own advantage. But there are other excuses. I heard these ones at various times. “The precepts are in order of importance, the first one being the most important and the last being least. Therefore, it is okay if you don’t practise the fifth precept.” Related to this rationalisation is this one: “It doesn’t really matter if you have a little drink because it’s only a minor thing.” And one more: “What harm is there with having a drink every now and then as long as you don’t get drunk?” These three excuses are partly true in that drinking alcohol is the least important of the precepts and that it is possible to drink without getting drunk. But all of them embody a major problem and it is this: if you are casual about and don’t even practise a minor rule, how are you going to practise the more challenging and important ones?
It is unarguable that the Buddha wanted his followers to practise the five precepts, not four or three of them, not just sometimes or only when it is convenient – but all the time; sincerely and to the best of one’s ability. And the last of these precepts is to shun intoxicating drugs, alcohol being the most common, the most widely-available and the most acceptable.
It is truly astonishing how pervasive alcohol has been in human history, the lengths humans have gone through to get it and the consequences it has had. The earliest evidence of alcohol manufacture and consumption is from the late Stone Age, about 10,000 years ago. Exactly how alcohol was discovered is unknown but many ancient religions developed myths that associated it with the divine, it was supposed to have been “a gift of the gods.”
Interestingly, the first Buddhists had a far less laudatory and a more plausible explanation of its origins. According to Kumbha Jataka, long ago in a certain forest there was a fruit tree which had a large forked trunk with a depression in it. Rainwater collected in the depression, fruit from the tree fell into it and warmed by the sun it fermented. In the summer, thirsty birds drank from the depression, became intoxicated, fell to the ground and after sleeping for a while, flew away. A hunter happened to observe this and curious as to its cause, he too drank some of the liquid and became intoxicated. Later, he introduced it to his friends and so it was that alcohol became known. According to the Jataka, this discovery became the cause of innumerable social ills. This is more than a clever story; the last part of it is absolutely true.
Statistics show that in the US, 65% of those who have committed a crime, from misdemeanours to capital ones, do so under the influence of alcohol. The situation in Sri Lanka is probably similar. In my country, Australia, until stringent laws against drinking and driving were introduced and rigorously enforced, the death toll from car accidents was horrendous and the number of those who were injured without being killed was even higher.
We think of our drinks as being made from wholesome things such as grapes, grain and coconut milk and indeed many of them are. But throughout history, alcohol has been made from almost anything; such is the craving to get it. In the past, Vodka was made from cast off potato peels, Advocaat was made from egg yolks that fell to the floor of chicken coop and cracked, and people in South America chew corn into a mash, spit it into a container, let it ferment into a brew they call chinch – human saliva and corn juice! In the late middle ages, petroleum oil naturally bubbled to the surface in parts of Poland and, you guessed it, the peasants used it to make a potent black alcohol. Above the Arctic Circle, the Eskimos had almost nothing they could use to make alcohol, but there was one resource that was common during the summer; the dead seagulls that washed up on the shore. So the Eskimos would collect the putrid corpse, put them in sear skin tubs of water, let it ferment in the sun and then… cheers! Apparently, this brew is still made in the more remote Eskimo communities.
But why is this compelling desire to drink alcohol? What is it about it that has driven people to go to extreme lengths to get it? Proverb 31 from the Bible gives one explanation: “Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” Of course, today, for many in Sri Lanka, like the good people who invited me to that dana, drinking, particularly expensive brands, is a way to impress one’s friends, to show how ‘sophisticated’ one is.
Sri Lankans in the 19th century were more knowledgeable. They knew the colonial rulers encouraged drinking as an easy way of raising revenue and keeping the ‘natives’ passive and controlled. This was why abstinence campaigns were an integral part of the struggle for independence. In this sense, people in those days took their Buddhism somewhat more seriously than many do today. Going back further, Robert Knox who was a careful observer of 17th century Sinhalese was able to write of them: “Drunkenness they do greatly abhor, neither are there many who do give themselves to it.” This general shunning of alcohol was probably due to the benign influence of the Buddha’s teachings.
The recent hard crackdown on drugs has been directed mainly on the newer types of these accursed substances while the traditional one, alcohol, remains easily available almost everywhere and increasingly acceptable. The recent ban on women purchasing alcohol highlights one of many problematic issues associated with drinking. Some commentators protested this ban saying it infringed on women’s right to be treated equally, and that it was an outdated patriarchal custom. In no country in the West until the early 1920s was it socially-acceptable for women to smoke; until tobacco companies started a cunning campaign to change this. They promoted female smoking in their advertisements as a question of ‘equality’ and ‘female independence.’ They dubbed them ‘Torches of Freedom.” The trick worked, women started to smoke and now they die of lung and mouth cancer, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and so forth, at exactly the same rates as male smokers do. A real victory for female equality! Traditionally, Sri Lankan women (and most men) did not drink and some social activists, and no doubt the brewers too, are doing their best to change this ‘patriarchal custom.’ Yes, if men want to get drunk, vomit, stagger down the street muttering to themselves and picking fights with strangers, women should have the right to do so as well.
It is quite understandable why women are peeved by being told they shouldn’t drink by men who do. However, they should see the issue as a question of hypocrisy and not as one of equality. It could be argued that making it illegal for women to purchase alcohol is an ill-considered move and almost certainly an ineffective one. History has shown again and again that banning tobacco, alcohol, prostitution and so forth has rarely worked; people are extraordinarily-creative at getting around such bans.
Better than resorting to the law (the police are already overstretched) would be encouraging, reinforcing and building on the custom that hindered females and males from drinking – a custom that has been current for centuries and one that had its origins in Buddhism. Men and women (at least those who identify as Buddhists) should abstain from alcohol because they are Buddhists; whether it is legal or not, but because it is an integral part of Buddhist ethics.
As an outsider, I have often noticed the frequency that Sri Lankans claim they do certain things, or insist that certain things be done, or that they praise certain things, because they were supposedly done in the glorious past. Well, throughout history, drinking was generally looked upon as a sign of impiety, of poor judgment, of lack of restraint, as a bad habit, and this helped to inhibit most people from drinking. Social disapproval tends to be more powerful in modifying human behaviour than laws do. If social disapproval is maintained and then combined with a ban on alcohol advertising and increased cost for it, perhaps the ancient tradition of abstinence will return.